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Letter from President Millard Fillmore to the
Emperor of Japan
The president letter opened a closed country to the West
~ Marvin Pinkert and Lee Ann Potter
In 1852, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S.
Navy sailed to Japan with instructions to deliver a letter
from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor. The
letter eventually led to the 1854 treaty of Kanagawa and
the opening of Japan to trade with Western nations. The
state Department’s letter book
copy of the letter is featured in
this article. (A letter book is
bound book containing copies of
official letters.)
Since the early 1600s,
Japan had maintained a policy of
sakoku or “close country”. The
Tokugawa Shogun’s government
had prohibited virtually all travel
abroad & trade with foreign
nations (with the exception of a
small Dutch enclave maintained
on the island of Deshime near Nagasaki). The purpose of
the policy was to put an end to what the Shogunate
perceived as missionary interference & the potential
corrupting influence of contact with foreigners,
especially Western “barbarians.” The full title of the
Shogun means “barbarian-subduing general,” & the
power to stop Westerners from violating Japan’s
seclusion policy was seen as a measure of the
Shogunate’s right to hold power.
Conversely, by the 1850s,
with the extension of the U.S.
border to the Pacific following the
policymakers, including President
Fillmore & Secretary of State
Daniel Webster, looked to Asia as
the next logical expression of
“manifest destiny.” European
powers were already contending
for control of Chinese ports, & the
United States did not wish to be
excluded from this arena. Though
trade with Japan was considered desirable, the drive to
open Japan focused specifically on two other issues.
As stated in the letter that was first drafted by
Webster in Many 1851, the United States wanted Japan
to provide safe haven for U.S. sailors from whaling
fleets who became shipwrecked near Japan’s shores. &,
the United States wanted Japan to allow American
steamships to be supplied with coal, provisions, & water
in Japanese ports.
That the letter
was addressed to the
Emperor rather than the
Shogun reflected some
ignorance on the part of the American leaders. Real
political power at this time rested
with the Shogun’s advisors, not
with the Emperor. Nonetheless,
when Perry & his squadron of
four warships entered Edo
(Tokyo) Bay in early July
1853, a senior court counselor
ceremoniously accepted the letter.
Perry’s arrival caused
considerable alarm. The city of
Edo was very vulnerable because
it depended greatly on sea supply
for its food.
The “Black
Ships”(the Japanese noted both the color of the hull &
the columns of smoke pouring from the steamships)
represented an unexpected technological advance. The
ships carried more armament than all of Edo’s coastal
defenses, which had been neglected during two countries
of peace. Moreover, the ships could use steam power to
overcome wind & tide.
After delivering the letter, Perry left for Hong
Kong & vowed to return early
the next spring for negotiations.
A few days after Perry
left Japan, the Shogun became
sick & died.
His chief
consulting with the regional
lords on how to respond to the
threat posed by the United
States. With no responsibility
for the result, many of the lords
used this opportunity to criticize
the Shogunate for its failure to expel the “barbarians.”
The Shogunate’s embarrassment was a contributing
factor in the disintegration of its authority.
In January 1854, Perry heard that the Russians &
the French might have sent their own diplomats to Japan.
So, he altered his timetable & risked a dangerous winger
voyage back to Japan-this time with nine ships. He
arrived in Japanese waters in mid-February, & reached a
compromise with Japanese officials to hastily build the
Treaty House in the village of Kanagawa (today part of
Yokohama) for the site of the negotiations.
Between March 8 & March 31, Perry negotiated
with Japanese commissioners led by Prince Ido of
Tsushima. One of the challenges faced by negotiators
on both sides was that neither had a representative at the
negotiating table who could speak the other’s language.
Nor was there an existing Japanese-English dictionary
that both could consult to translate from one language to
the other. Instead, all of the proposals between the two
sides had to be translated into one of the two languages
for which they both had translators – Dutch & Chinese.
The final Treaty of Kanagawa, signed on March
31, 1854, was considered “unequal” in that it granted the
United States rights while giving no comparable rights to
Japan. It did, however, reflect compromises on both
sides. Perry asked for five coaling ports. Article II of
the treaty provided for just two-both remote from major
population centers. Also, Perry wanted to establish
trade, but settled for supplies to be provided through the
Japanese government. Even the absence of a Japanese
signature on the English, Dutch, & Chinese versions of
the treaty was a concession to the Japanese negotiators
who explained that their laws prohibited signing
documents in foreign languages.
But both sets of negotiator told their respective
governments that all their major goals had been achieved
& that the compromises were of little consequence. In
early summer of 1854, the U.S. Senate ratified the treaty,
President Franklin Pierce made an official proclamation
on June 22, 1855, & U.S. Consul Townsend Harris
became America’s first diplomatic representative to
Japan in August 1856.
Within two years the British, French, Russian, &
Dutch governments had concluded their own “unequal”
treaties with Japan. The treaties fueled the efforts of
regional lords to first question & later openly rebel
against the Tokugawa Shogunate. A new government
installed under the Emperor Meiji in 1868 committed
itself to the modernization of Japan & the revision of the
unequal terms of the treaties.
Commodore Perry absolutely prohibited officers
& men from sending home journals, notes, drawings,
curiosities or specimens from the voyage without
permission or allowing their letters to be given to the
newspapers. The order reflected Perry’s previous
experience with press criticism & his desire to control
the flow of information about his sensitive diplomatic
mission. While at least two of his crew disobeyed this
order, still much of what is known about the expedition
comes from Perry’s own narrative & his personal
journals, all in the holdings of the National Archives.
They contain many illustrations & written observations
of people & customs. Perry brought two artists & a
naturalist on the expedition for the purpose of gathering
scientific & cultural data, making this a voyage of
exploration as well as diplomacy.
The Japanese also made both written & visual
records of the extraordinary events of 1853-54. The
“Black Ship Scroll,” a thirty-foot-long set of hand-drawn
illustrations, is an example of a contemporary Japanese
Note: You can access the document featured in this
article from the records of the Department of State,
Record Group 46, & is in the holdings of the National
Archives. The original letter that was received by the
Emperor burned in a fire in Japan in 1858.
Chronology of the Mission to “Open Japan”
1844 The Dutch unsuccessfully seek relaxation
of exclusion laws & warn the Japanese of
America’s future ambitions.
1846 Commodore James Biddle leads first
official American mission to open Japan but
fails to be granted a meeting with senior
Japanese officials
1849 Captain James Glynn leads second
American mission, securing the release of
captured American seamen, but no agreement
June 10, 1851 Secretary of State Daniel
Webster sends instructions to Commodore J.A.
Aulick of the East India Squadron to lead an
expedition to Japan for purposes of securing a
treaty to provide coaling ports, protect
shipwrecked whalers, & establish trade.
January 22, 1852 Following Aulick’s personal
scandal, Commodore Matthew C. Perry
reluctantly accepts command of the mission. He
spends months briefing himself on Japan &
meticulously organizing the logistics of the
November 24, 1852 Perry sails out of Norfolk,
Va., on the Mississippi bound for China, by way
of Madeira, St. Helena, Cape Town, Mauritius,
Sri Lanka, & Singapore
April 6, 1853 Perry arrives in Hong Kong & is
joined by other ships of the East India Squadron.
July 8, 1853 Perry’s squadron of four “black
ships” enters Edo (Tokyo) Bay to deliver a letter
to the Emperor requesting a treaty.
July 17, 1853 Perry leaves for Hong Kong
promising to return in the spring for
January 15, 1854 Hearing that the Russians &
French may already have missions on their way
to Japan, Perry changes his timetable & risks a
dangerous winter voyage back to Japan, this
time with nine ships.
February 13, 1854 Perry arrives back in
Japanese waters & reaches a compromise with
Japanese officials to hastily build the Treaty
House in the village of Kanagawa (today part of
Yokohama) for the site of the negotiations.
March 8-31, 1854 Perry negotiates with
Japanese commissioners led by Prince Ido of
March 31, 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa is signed.